September 17th, 2009
While the omniscient author was the standard point of view for nineteenth century novels, one notable exception was Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and short stories about the detective extraordinaire Sherlock Holmes. As anyone who has read them knows, the narrator is Holmes’s assistant Doctor Watson.
The stories were written to create suspense, as the great freelance detective wrestles with cases that baffle both the police and any person of reasonable intelligence. Near the end of each story, Holmes ultimately takes decisive (and often risky) action that cracks the case. In the denouement, Holmes explains to Watson (“you know my methods, Watson, it’s elementary”) how, based on his extraordinary powers of observation, association, and deduction, he came to his solution.
Watson thus serves as a proxy for the reader, who is assumed to be as baffled as Watson, and who thus receives Holmes’s explanation with gratitude.
There were two other narrative structures Doyle could have used, namely Holmes’s first-person narrative or the omniscient narrator.
First person narrative would have destroyed the suspense, because Holmes would have been explaining his thought process as he went along, thus solving the case in the middle of the story for himself, rather than solving it for the reader at the end. Furthermore, Holmes inevitably would have been calling attention to his own intelligence, thus appearing insufferably conceited and hence unappealing to the reader. Superior intelligence is a more appealing trait when it is observed by others than proclaimed by the savant himself.
An omniscient narrator would have been a better choice. The narrator could have maintained suspense by keeping the revelations to the denouement, say with Holmes explaining his thinking to his professional colleagues at Scotland Yard or by writing it up in a diary. But telling the story from the point of view of an omniscient narrator would have called attention to the fictional nature of the stories as the product of Doyle’s authorial intelligence.
By establishing a dialogue between Holmes, the guru, and Watson, the thoughtful follower, Doyle, wisely, put himself completely in the background. The stories thus establish a seamless narrative experience in which the reader can readily immerse himself/herself. And that is why, to Doyle’s chagrin, when he decided to kill off Holmes, his bereaved audience demanded that he be resurrected.